By the second half the Seventies, the Eagles‘ “Peaceful Easy Feeling” seemed like a distant memory, a pleasantly stoned dream rudely interrupted by the pressures of business and fame. A deep malaise had set in, one which couldn’t be soothed by money, sex or drugs. It tightened its grasp on the band, the music industry and the country at large.
With Hotel California, the Eagles sought to capture the excesses and self-destructive behavior that had become status quo in the rock world. It was a scene they were uniquely qualified to address. Their previous album, 1975’s One of These Nights, had spawned three Top 10 singles, and their greatest-hits album sold in such stratospheric numbers – on its way to becoming the best-selling album of the 20th century in the United States – that the RIAA had to invent to platinum certification. “We were under the microscope,” Glenn Frey said of the time. “Everybody was going to look at the next record we made and pass judgment. Don [Henley] and I were going, ‘Man, this better be good.'”
Their efforts would create a song cycle that succeeded on nearly every level. Hotel California drew heroic sales figures and critical plaudits in equal measure, and affirmed the band’s shift from laid-back country-tinged pop act to major players in the rock & roll fast lane. The rich lyrics – both introspective and allegorical – had fans pondering their true meaning for decades to come. Was Hotel California about a mental institution? Drug addiction? A feud with Steely Dan? Satanism?
“The concept had to do with taking a look at all the band had gone through, personally and professionally, while it was still happening to them,” Henley told author Marc Eliot. “We were getting an extensive education, in life, in love, in business. Beverly Hills was still a mythical place to us. In that sense, it became something of a symbol and the ‘Hotel’ the locus of all that L.A. had come to mean for us. In a sentence, I’d sum it up as the end of the innocence, round one.”
In honor of Hotel California‘s 40th anniversary, we look back at some lesser-known stories behind the blockbuster album.
1. The working title of “Hotel California” was “Mexican Reggae.”
Though it’s since become synonymous with the dark, sinister underside of Los Angeles, the album’s title track took shape in a surprisingly idyllic setting. Don Felder had rented a beach house in Malibu, and was in the midst of taking in the ocean breeze as he leisurely strummed his guitar. “I remember sitting in the living room on a spectacular July day with the doors wide open,” he told Guitar World in 2013. “I had a bathing suit on and was sitting on this couch, soaking wet, thinking the world is a wonderful place to be. I had this acoustic 12-string and started tinkling around with it, and those ‘Hotel California’ chords just kind of oozed out.”
After completing the basic melody, he fetched his TEAC 4-track tape recorder to preserve his latest composition, which he embellished with bass and drum-machine overdubs. “I knew it was unique but didn’t know if it was appropriate for the Eagles,” he admitted to Gibson.com in 2010. “It was kind of reggae, almost an abstract guitar part for what was on the radio back then.”
When the Eagles reconvened in the spring of 1976 to begin work on what was to be their fifth album, Felder assembled cassettes of his instrumental demos for his bandmates to mine for song ideas. Despite his initial reticence, the reggae-flavored tune made the cut.
“Felder had submitted a cassette tape containing about half a dozen different pieces of music,” Henley told Rolling Stone in June. “None of them moved me until I got to that one. It was a simple demo – a progression of arpeggiated guitar chords, along with some hornlike sustained note lines, all over a simple 4/4 drum-machine pattern. There may have been some Latin-style percussion in there too. I think I was driving down Benedict Canyon Drive at night, or maybe even North Crescent Drive (adjacent to the Beverly Hills Hotel) the first time I heard the piece, and I remember thinking, ‘This has potential; I think we can make something interesting out of this.'”
Glenn Frey was equally impressed. “We said this is electric Mexican reggae. Wow. What a nice synthesis of styles,” he said in a 1992 episode of In The Studio With Redbeard. “Mexican Reggae” ultimately became the song’s working title during early sessions before the lyrics were finalized.
2. Black Sabbath was recording in the studio next door, and the noise disrupted the Eagles’ sessions.
To oversee the new sessions, the Eagles turned to veteran producer Bill Szymczyk, who had worked on their previous album, One of These Nights. Szymczyk was happy to return, but he had one condition: He wanted to record at Miami’s legendary Criteria Studios, far from the band’s standard base of operations at L.A.’s Record Plant.
His reasoning went beyond the technical. A recent earthquake had sent him “off the bed onto the floor,” instilling in him an intense fear of living on a fault line. “The day the earthquake happened was the day I became an independent producer,” he later joked to Sound on Sound. To avoid the earthquake zone, he insisted that the band record in Miami. Eventually a compromise was reached, and they would split time between both favored studios. “Every time we were at Criteria, the guys were actually quite happy to be out of L.A. and away from all of the partying and the hangers-on,” said Szymczyk.
They were joined at Criteria by Black Sabbath, holed up in the adjacent studio working on their Technical Ecstasy album. “The Eagles were recording next door, but we were too loud for them,” Tony Iommi told Uncut in 2014. “It kept coming through the wall into their sessions.” Hotel California‘s delicate closing ballad, “The Last Resort,” had to be re-recorded multiple times to due to noise leakage.
Sabbath may have been louder, but the Eagles held their own when it came to partying. Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler recalled venturing into a studio recently vacated by the band: “Before we could start recording we had to scrape all the cocaine out of the mixing board. I think they’d left about a pound of cocaine in the board.”
3. When it came time to record “Hotel California,” Felder forgot what he’d written.
By the time the Eagles settled into Criteria Studios to lay down tracks for “Hotel California,” more than a year had elapsed since Felder first recorded his initial tape of the song. When he and Joe Walsh began to work out the extended guitar fade, Henley felt that something was missing.
“Joe and I started jamming, and Don said, ‘No, no, stop! It’s not right,'” Felder told MusicRadar in 2012. “I said, ‘What do you mean it’s not right?’ And he said, ‘No, no, you’ve got to play it just like the demo.’ Only problem was, I did that demo a year earlier; I couldn’t even remember what was on it.” Further complicating matters was the fact that the tape in question was at the other end of the country in Los Angeles. So the band was forced to improvise.
“We had to call my housekeeper in Malibu, who took the cassette, put it in a blaster and played it with the phone held up to the blaster,” he says. In the end, the results were deemed satisfactory. “It was close enough to the demo to make Don happy.”
4. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull believed “Hotel California” sounded suspiciously like one of his songs.
Hearing “Hotel California” for the first time gave Jethro Tull multi-instrumentalist Ian Anderson a serious case of déjà vu. To his ears, the global smash sounded distinctly like his own composition, “We Used to Know,” from the prog-rockers’ 1969 sophomore album, Stand Up. The fact that the Eagles and Jethro Tull toured together in 1972 did little to dispel his belief that, maliciously or not, they lifted elements of the song from him. “Maybe it was just something they kind of picked up on subconsciously, and introduced that chord sequence into their famous song ‘Hotel California’ sometime later,” he said in an interview with Songfacts.
In the Eagles’ defense, the tour took place two years before Felder, the song’s primary composer, officially joined the band in 1974 – though he was a friend of founding guitarist Bernie Leadon at the time and could have conceivably attended one of the performances. Felder himself later denied having ever heard “We Used to Know” at the time he wrote the song, and claimed to know little about Jethro Tull other than that they featured a flautist.
Whatever the case, Anderson takes a magnanimous view of the incident. “It’s just the same chord sequence,” he continues. “It’s in a different time signature, different key, different context. And it’s a very, very fine song that they wrote, so I can’t feel anything other than a sense of happiness for their sake. … There’s certainly no bitterness or any sense of plagiarism attached to my view on it – although I do sometimes allude, in a joking way, to accepting it as a kind of tribute.”
5. “Life in the Fast Lane” was inspired by a conversation with Glenn Frey’s drug dealer at 90 miles an hour.
The Eagles’ success made them, by their own admission, well versed in most forms of debauchery: illicit pharmaceuticals, hotel destruction and elaborate forms of sex play. Some of these late nights yielded memorable lyrics. One of the album’s standout tracks was inspired by Glenn Frey’s particularly harrowing car ride with his bagman.
“I was riding shotgun in a Corvette with a drug dealer on the way to a poker game,” he recalled in 2013 documentary The History of the Eagles. “The next thing I know we’re doing 90. Holding! Big Time! I say, ‘Hey, man!’ He grins and goes, ‘Life in the fast lane!’ I thought, ‘Now there’s a song title.'”
He held onto the phrase for months, until a hard-hitting riff spilled out of Joe Walsh’s guitar during a band rehearsal. The lick stopped Frey in his tracks. He asked Walsh to repeat it, and soon realized that he was hearing the sound of life in the fast lane. From there, the song began to take root.
The final track brought Frey uncomfortably close to the drug-fueled reality that surrounded the band. “I could hardly listen to [‘Life in the Fast Lane’] when we were recording it because I was getting high a lot at the time and the song made me ill,” he told Rolling Stone in 1979. “We were trying to paint a picture that cocaine wasn’t that great. It turns on you. It messed up my back muscles, it messed up my nerves, it messed up my stomach, and made me paranoid.”
6. Don Felder was originally slated to sing “Victim of Love.”
In addition to the title track, Felder’s primary contribution to Hotel California was the relentless “Victim of Love,” which showcased a rougher sound for the band. “We were trying to move in a heavier direction, away from country rock,” he told Songfacts. “And so I wrote 16 or 17 song ideas, kind of in a more rock & roll direction, and ‘Victim of Love’ was one of those songs. I remember we went in the studio and we recorded it live with five guys playing. The only thing that wasn’t played in a live session was the lead vocal and harmony on the choruses. Everything else was recorded live.”
In tribute to the song’s genesis, the phrase “V.O.L. is a five piece live” was proudly inscribed on the album’s run-out groove – signaling that “Victim of Love” was recorded live by the five Eagles. The message, etched by Bill Szymczyk, served as a middle finger to critics who accused them of being too clinical and soulless in the studio.
Felder himself provided lead vocals on the initial takes of the songs, but some of his bandmates were not pleased with the results. “Don Felder, for all of his talents as a guitar player, was not a singer,” Frey said in The History of the Eagles. Henley echoed the sentiment. “He sang it dozens of times over the space of a week, over and over. It simply did not come up to band standards.”
The Eagles’ manager Irving Azoff was given the task of breaking the news to him over dinner, while Henley recorded the lead part back at the studio. “It was a little bit of a bitter pill to swallow. I felt like Don was taking that song from me,” Felder said in the documentary. “But there was no way to argue with my vocal versus Don Henley’s vocal.”
7. Don Henley brought his own mattress to each hotel during the Hotel California tour.
To combat grueling tour schedules, many bands go to great lengths to approximate the comforts of home while on the road. The Eagles were no exception, even chartering an elaborate private jet for their travels. But the band’s head electrician, Joe Berry, recalls Henley’s special request for the Hotel California tour. “He insisted on having a king-size bed and mattress available at all times, which the crew had to drag around everywhere,” he told Marc Eliot in To the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles. “The tour seamstress made a special cover for it, with handles, to make it easier to pack it in the truck every night. It was Don’s bed, it went everywhere.”
Henley defends this apparent extravagance by chalking it up to excruciating back pain exacerbated by the nightly performances. “I used to have to hold my body in such a position that my spine got out of alignment,” he explained to Modern Drummer. “Between playing the drums and keeping my mouth in front of the microphone, it really twisted my whole body. I got to a point in the Seventies where I literally could not sleep.”
The discomfort wasn’t helped by the poor quality bedding at their accommodations. “Hotel mattresses are awful – the worst goddamn thing in the room,” he told Eliot. “So I brought my own mattresses and had it trucked around with the equipment.” Unfortunately, the concierges were less sympathetic to Henley’s bad back. According to Berry, the mattress “never once got used, because no hotel would allow us to bring it in.”
8. The cover was shot by the man behind the Beatles’ Abbey Road and the Who’s Who’s Next – and it almost got the band sued.
To bring the allegorical Hotel California to life, the Eagles enlisted the services of British art director Kosh (a.k.a. John Kosh), the man responsible for the Beatles’ striking Abbey Road album cover, the Who’s Who’s Next, the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! and many others. After listening to a rough cut of the album’s title track, he was given a simple directive. “Don wanted me to find and portray the Hotel California – and portray it with a slightly sinister edge,” Kosh recalled in a 2007 interview with the Rock and Roll Report.
He scouted locations with photographer David Alexander, and assembled a shortlist of suitable venues. The Beverley Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard was quickly agreed upon as the favorite, but erasing all traces of the building’s bright and airy resort-like appearance would prove to be a serious technical challenge.
“To get the perfect picture, David and I had perched nervously atop a 60-foot cherry picker dangling over Sunset Boulevard in the rush hour, shooting blindly into the sun,” says Kosh. “Both of us brought our Nikons up in the basket and we took turns shooting, ducking and reloading. We used high-speed Ektachrome film as the light began to fade. This film gave us the remarkable graininess of the final shot.”
The chosen shot, captured at the so-called “golden hour” just before sunset, would become one of the most recognizable album covers in rock history. Ironically, most failed to recognize the supremely famous hotel in the photo. When word finally got out about the building’s identity, representatives for the luxurious establishment were less than pleased. “As the sales of Hotel California went through the roof, lawyers for the Beverly Hills Hotel threatened me with a ‘cease and desist’ action,” says Kosh, “until it was gently pointed out by my attorney that the hotel’s requests for bookings had tripled since the release of the album.”
9. The band blew off the Grammys, instead watching their win from band practice.
The Eagles were nominated for several Grammy awards in January 1978, including the prestigious Record of the Year for “Hotel California,” but Irving Azoff didn’t buy the “It’s an honor to be nominated!” line. Despite their meteoric sales, the band’s image had taken a beating in the popular music press, and he was unwilling to subject them to any kind of PR humiliation. So when Grammy producer Pierre Cossette asked the Eagles to perform during the 20th annual ceremony, Azoff reportedly refused. The only way the band would play – or even attend – was if they were guaranteed that “Hotel California” would nab the prize.
Rigging the awards was obviously out of the question, so Azoff suggested hiding the band in a secret dressing room, where they would emerge only if their name was called for Record of the Year. This scheme was rejected, as was the request that another artist accept the award on their behalf (Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt were mentioned as possible surrogates).
When the Eagles’ ultimately won, host Andy Williams was left standing expectantly, haplessly waiting for someone to come forward and accept the honor. Azoff hastily put out a release saying that the band was in Miami working on their new album, ending the statement with a dismissive “That’s the future, this is the past.” Guitarist Timothy B. Schmit later said they watched the telecast in the midst of their band rehearsal. If they were disappointed that they weren’t there to accept the award in person, they didn’t show it. “The whole idea of a contest to see who is ‘best’ just doesn’t appeal to us,” Henley told The L.A. Times.
10. The producer behind Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind wanted to turn “Hotel California” into a movie.
“When we thought of this song ‘Hotel California,’ we started thinking that it would be very cinematic to do it sort of like The Twilight Zone,” Frey once reflected in a BBC 2 radio interview. “One line says there’s a guy on the highway and the next line says there’s a hotel in the distance. Then there’s a woman there. Then he walks in. … So it’s one-shots all sort of strung together, and you sort of draw your own conclusions from it.”
The song’s cinematic quality drew the attention of Julia Phillips, who made history in 1974 by becoming the first female producer to win an Academy Award for the Paul Newman and Robert Redford caper The Sting. A string of blockbusters followed, including Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and by the end of the decade she set her sights on adapting the Eagles’ smash. An initial meeting with Azoff led to a tentative predevelopment deal, but relations became frosty when she quizzed him on the particulars of the song’s copyright lawsuit that the band initiated against their former manager, David Geffen, and Warner Bros. Records.
Henley and Frey accompanied Azoff to the next meeting, which, by all accounts, was unpleasant. In her infamous tell-all memoir, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, Phillips portrays the rock stars as arrogant and difficult, with a weakness for white powder. However, Henley disputes this description in To the Limit. “Glenn and I remember that day quite vividly. We had gone to her house reluctantly. … We sat there, polite but not terribly friendly. We were too wary to be friendly. In an effort to loosen us up, and to create some kind of camaraderie, she dragged out this huge ashtray filled with a mound of coke. … She offered us some, and we said no; we didn’t know her that well, and it was a business meeting. It was a little early in the day for us. She looked nonplussed at that.”
Whatever the truth, the movie deal was dead in the water. Like their Grammy no-show, the band was not particularly distressed over it. “They didn’t really want to see ‘Hotel California’ made into a movie,” one band associate admitted to Eliot. “They were suspicious of the film business. After all, that was what ‘Hotel California’ was all about. I remember from the first day, Henley seemed really reluctant about it. Being the control freak that he is, he sensed he’d never be able to control the making of a film and was afraid of seeing what he considered his finest, most personal work reduced to the level of a sitcom.”